Town & Country

Pouring Their Art Out: Two Giants of the Midcentury Return to New York
October 13, 2014

BY  KEVIN CONLEY

 

Morris Louis is a gimme on any art history ID test: there is no one remotely like him before or since. His peak period came late, starting in 1954, after a visit to New York helped him break away, at the age of 42, from the shadow of Jackson Pollock. And it didn't last long, just eight feverish years, until his death in 1962, at the age of 49.

 

He was an outsider, geographically (he lived in DC, not New York) and by temperament, and he worked in such isolation that to this day no one knows precisely how he went about making his signature work. What can be determined: he poured a new experimental acrylic paint, Bocour Magna, directly onto unprimed cotton duck canvas, and let the brilliant colors run their own course. The one here, officially called Untitled, but informally known as Split Veil, contains the signature element of the series he called Veils—a shadowy effect he achieved by adding somber shades to the colors, sometimes over the works, sometimes into the pigments themselves. They're made with the same dramatic rivers of paint that he made famous with the series he called Pours, but here the colors have been transposed to a minor key.

 

The Upper East Side townhouse that's home to this show, the Mnuchin gallery at 45 East 78th Street, is a savvy bijou of a place, with a long history of museum-quality exhibitions carefully focused on high points in modern or contemporary art—Warhol's colored soup cans, Donald Judd's stacks, Damien Hirst's medicine cabinets. Often the artistic peaks on display have been obscured over the years by other more famous cycles in an artist's output, or by the work of headline grabbing younger generations. These shows often have the force of revelation, or at least of emotion recollected in tranquility.

 

Louis is a perfect illustration. The artist is widely seen as the central figure of Color Field painting, a transitional moment between action painting and Pop. Clement Greenberg discovered and championed the artist with a Pygmalion-like devotion that secured Louis's place in the art history textbooks but may also have obscured the range of his achievement. The Mnuchin gallery has highlighted his subtlest series, known collectively as Veils. The braided opalescence of Tet, its muted opticality, shows that subtlety to great advantage. Jackson Pollock flung paint and turned the canvas into a form of choreographic record in a restricted palette. Louis insisted on motion too, with one crucial difference: in his works, it's the colors themselves that are set in motion, especially so here, where no matter what distance you choose to view the work from there is a sparkle of gentle subsidence.

 

One of the hallmarks of this instant in the art world is the ease with which conversations move from talk of an artist's esthetic value to their most recent auction records, from the achievement of the piece to the latest prices. The Mnuchin gallery has had great good luck in both: identifying troves of neglected masterpieces and catching them at a moment when they feel undervalued. They've been doing this for so long that the process seems almost self-fulfilling by now: if Mnuchin has found something you've forgotten about and turned it into a show, it might be a good idea to jump on it now because the prices will most likely rise (the financial instincts that made gallery principal Robert Mnuchin's first fortune—as a banker at Goldman Sachs—have not abandoned him as he pursues his second). Case in point: Louis's auction record is a shade under three million dollars. Given the strength of the current reassessment, the bet here is that works like Beth Samach are undervalued at such levels.

 

A few blocks south on Madison Avenue, Dominique Lévy, Mnuchin's former partner, has launched her own gallery (it turns one in November) using a strategy consistent with the one she helped fashion. Her entry this month is Roman Opalka, a Polish artist born in France. He's a thornier figure, a serial artist, who from 1965 on dedicated himself to painting the numbers, from 1 to infinity, painstakingly in order, in white paint, on an increasingly pale background that came closer and closer, over the years, to merging with the whiteness of the numbers (the last number he painted, before his death in 2011, was 5607249). The project was heroic and intellectual and foolish and incredibly constricting in seemingly equal measure—a self-imposed sentence and a meditation on mortality ("strategically dry but ultimately breathtaking," according to the gallery).

 

The revelation here is the inclusion on a separate floor of works that Opalka made in the years before he indulged his lifelong numerological impulse, vivid marks governed by mathematical rules (indiscernible to the viewer, but animating the canvas nonetheless). Several of these works actually do take my breath away, and though they are smaller than the later numerical canvases, which were designed to be the size of his studio door, they seem much larger, and deeply immersive, vast enough at times for a viewer to lose all perspective. 


Both shows continue through October 18.